Does 20/20 Report Hold Water?

Association takes news program to task over bottled water test

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- ABC-TV news magazine 20/20 earlier this month aired a story, Is Bottled Water Better Than Tap?, that reported the results of a taste test that unfavorably compared bottled water with tap water. ABC's John Stossel asked, Why do people pay so much for something they can get virtually free? He added, People also say they drink bottled water because they believe it's safer than tap water. Bottled water, we were told, is cleaner, safer, healthier. But it's not true.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) responded, saying that [image-nocss] the story was an inadequately researched and lopsided segmentthat did not provide consumers with the basic facts about this important consumer food product. Programming lacking balanceis a disservice to consumers who should remain comfortable in choosing bottled water for refreshment and hydration, or in times of natural disaster or emergency.

20/20 said it took five bottles of national brands of bottled water and a sample of tap water from a drinking fountain in the middle of New York City and sent them to microbiologist Aaron Margolin of the University of New Hampshire to test for bacteria like e. coli. There was actually no difference between the New York City tap water and the bottled waters that we evaluated, Stossel said. Many scientists have run tests like that and have consistently found that tap water is as good for you as bottled waters that cost 500 times more.

The news source performed a taste test, offering people New York City tap water and five other bottled waters: Evian, Aquafina, Poland Spring, Iceland Spring and American Fare, a discount brand from Kmart. 20/20 asked people to rate the waters as bad, average or great.

Many testers said one of the waters was particularly bad. But it was not the tap water, the show reported. Even people who said they do not like it, liked it on the blind test, 20/20 said. I suspect many people who buy the fancy waters are getting suckered by the ads or the labels, said Stossel.

In its test, Kmart's American Farethe cheapest brandwon. Aquafina came in second. Iceland Spring tied with the tap water for third place. Fifth place went to Poland Spring, and in last place, with almost half the testers saying it tasted bad, was the most expensive waterEvian.

Stossel concluded, Bottom line, if you buy bottled water because you think it's healthier than tap, test after test shows no evidence of that. And if you buy fancy brands because you think they taste better, you're probably just buying the hype.

IBWA said, The good news is that the laboratory tests performed by 20/20 on bottled water came back with flying colors, with all results demonstrating the consistent safety and quality of bottled water. This is a crucial fact that was glossed over in the program. And other good news is that all brands of bottled water fared very well in the consumer taste tests, something attributable to bottled water's consistent good taste.

The group also said, 20/20's admittedly nonscientific' taste test, where some respondents gave New York City tap water high marks, indicates that New York City tap water providers deliver quality drinking water. The 20/20 taste testers also rated bottled water highly. But consumers in New York and other cities across the United States may choose bottled water because they are not always satisfied with the aesthetic qualities (e.g., taste, odor, color) of their tap water. The five brands of bottled water taste-tested by 20/20 fared well; however, there was not an apples-to-apples' comparison in which tap water samples from other municipalities were tasted and compared to New York City tap water. There are thousands of tap systems across the U.S., most of which are succeeding in delivering quality drinking water; however, others are faced with occasional challenges' or natural events such as hurricanes, blizzards or floods that may cause service interruptions. In these cases, consumers, often at the behest of state agencies, have boil or bottled water alerts. The bottled water industry works in partnership with states/localities to provide bottled water to households during these events.

IBWA President Joseph K. Doss said, Consumers choose bottled water and view it as a worthwhile expenditure because they appreciate the convenience and good taste of bottled water brands consumed on the go, and at the home or the office; however, consumers also benefit from bottled water safety and quality which result from multiple layers of regulation and standards at the federal, state and industry levels.

Bottled water continues to be a top-selling item for convenience stores. According to CSP's Category Management Handbook (2005), citing data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), the top 10 bottled waters in c-store sales for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 23, 2005 (and% change from a year ago), included:

1. Aquafina ($313.2 million; +15.5%)

2. Dasani ($263.9 million; +8.5%)

3. Propel ($125 million; +47.4%)

4. Arrowhead ($87.9 million; +21.3%)

5. Deer Park ($60.8 million; +26.5%)

6. Poland Spring ($59.8 million; +24.1%)

7. Evian ($49.8 million; -14.2%)

8. Ozarka ($40.8 million; -1.8%)

9. Deja Blue ($36.8 million; -10.9%)

10. Zephyrhills ($30 million; +2.8%)

Total, including other brands ($1.3547 billion; +13.1%)

Private-label water sales increased 15.7% to $29.3 million, making it the 11th-biggest seller in c-stores, according to IRI.

Click herefor IBWA's website.

Click here to read the full ABC report.